St. Louis Jewish Film Festival 2023 Preview | Mar. 12-16, 2023

Ignacy Liss and Vanessa Aleksander in March ’68. Photo by Miguel Nieto, courtesy of Menemsha Films.

After three years of virtual screenings, the 28th edition of the annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival returns to the theater—specifically the Marcus Des Peres Cinema (12701 Manchester Rd.). As in past years, the festival offers up a rich variety of films: both narrative features and documentaries, both American and international in origin, with stories from such far-flung places as Israel, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Belarus, and South Africa, all themed around capturing the Jewish experience.

The first stop on this cinematic world tour is France for Fred Cavayé’s powerful Farewell, Mr. Haffmann (03.12, 4:00pm), specifically Paris, 1941. The titular Mr. Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil, best known for Jean de Florette and Caché) has a wonderful home and a successful business as a jeweler. But when the occupying Nazi forces announce a Jewish census, the Jewish Haffmann smuggles his wife and children off to the unoccupied zone. He stays behind for one more day, to set up a trade with his bumbling but well-meaning gentile assistant François (Gilles Lellouche) wherein Haffmann will forge the documents to “sell” the business to François, allowing him and his wife to run the shop and live in the upstairs apartment free of charge until the end of the War, at which time, François agrees to give the jewelry store back. Oh, but if only Haffmann had left a day earlier—suddenly Nazi checkpoints are everywhere, and Haffmann instead has to hunker down in the store’s basement. Meanwhile, François, who has dreamed of having his own jewelry store and of starting a family with his laundress wife Blanche (Sara Giraudeau), soon finds that you should be careful what you wish for. Farewell, Mr. Haffmann is a film about emasculation, and about the way that the trauma of war draws out the inherent goodness or badness within a person. The looming threat of discovery by the Nazis gives the film an excruciating tension, and you can feel the weight of that tension as the days turn to months and years in the haunted eyes of the stellar central cast, who all prove why they have a mountain of César Award wins and nominations between them.

Then it’s off to Israel for a story whose stakes are less global and more personal in Moshe Rosenthal’s Karaoke (03.13, 7:00pm). Meir (Sasson Gabay) and Tova (Rita Shukrun) are a classic opposites attract marriage—he quiet and reserved, she gregarious and glamorous. But the decades-long marriage gains new dimension when Itzik (Lior Ashkenazi) moves into their apartment building’s penthouse. Meir and Tova aren’t hurting for money (he’s a professor on sabbatical, she runs a successful beauty salon), but they’ve seen nothing like the riches of Itzik, a jet-setting manager of fashion models who splits his time between Israel and Miami and packs the penthouse with all the booze, drugs, and gorgeous people our couple could ever imagine. The more time they spend with the entirely unreserved Itzik, the more open Meir and Tova get, and the more they start to realize they may not even really know themselves, much less each other. Karaoke actually plays only a minor role in Karaoke, as does dramatic conflict: Rosenthal is more interested in exploring the walls we build up inside ourselves and the fitful joys and defeats of starting to live honestly, even in old age. Gabay does wonders in slowly drawing out Meir’s long-bottled emotions, while Ashkenazi nails Itzik’s charisma, constructing a man that’s easy to love and loathe, often at the exact same time.

The craziest thing about Ella Blumenthal, the subject of Jordy Sank’s documentary I Am Here (03.14, 1:00pm), is that she is still here, having survived the Nazis’ three most terrifying concentration camps, which would claim 23 of her close family members. Filmed as she celebrated her 98th birthday (she’s since turned 101!) surrounded by family in her South African home, Blumenthal recounts her survival story in harrowing detail, yet never loses her gregariousness or her positivity. I was lucky enough to screen I Am Here as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival back in 2021; you can read my full review of it here.

It’s back to Nazi-occupied France for Persian Lessons (03.14, 7:00pm), an excruciatingly intense survival story from The House of Sand and Fog director Vadim Perelman. A group of Jews is captured by Nazi soldiers and they are all gunned down—except for Gilles (Nahual Pérez Biscayart), who claims to be Persian. As luck would have it, there is a German officer named Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger, recently seen as Mr. Gray in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise) who wants to learn Farsi so he can move to Persia to join his estranged brother. The problem? Gilles is definitely Jewish, not Persian, and doesn’t speak a word of Farsi—so he makes it up. But inventing a language is one thing—keeping all the made-up words consistent so that his captor is none the wiser is another thing entirely, especially as the war stretches on and the number of words balloons from dozens to hundreds. Biscayart uses his slackened jaw and perpetual thousand-yard stare to effectively capture the paranoia of always being one wrong step from discovery and death, while Eidinger puts on a phenomenal performance as a man who can switch from charismatic friendliness to murderous rage at the drop of a hat.   

Documentarian, internet talk show host, and hardcore punk singer Drew Stone heads to Israel to explore the collisions between Jewish history and American blues music in The Jews and The Blues (03.16, 1:00pm). Stone’s attempts at establishing a historical linkage are a little spotty (“The first blues singer was King David,” one Israeli blues singer says, unconvincingly) but that’s okay, because where The Jews and The Blues works best is as a travelogue and interview piece. Stone explores the hidden corners of Tel Aviv, the holy places of Jerusalem, and even visits musicians that live just minutes from the war-torn Gaza Strip, discussing the blues with a number of Israeli musicians who perform the blues (most of them immigrants from places like Yemen, Morocco, and Ethiopia) and learning why the music speaks to them. In that way, it plays out like an episode of Somebody Feed Phil with food swapped for music and the amiable Stone as our punk rock Phil Rosenthal. Other music-based documentaries screening (but not reviewed by yours truly—only so many hours in a day!) include Douglas Tirola’s Bernstein’s Wall (03.12, 7:00pm), about world-renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein; Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (03.15, 4:00pm), a multi-faceted look at the composition and lasting impact of Cohen’s indelible hit; and Daniel Raim’s Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen (03.16, 7:00pm), a Jeff Goldblum-narrated document of Norman Jewison’s behind-the-scenes struggles to bring the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof alive on the silver screen in 1971.

Krzysztof Lang’s March ’68 (03.16, 4:00pm) tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers—college students Hania (Vanessa Aleksander) and Janek (Ignacy Liss)—in Cold War-era Poland. The pair are drawn together by the theater, specifically performances of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) that were banned by the country’s communist government, their censorship inspiring widespread real world protests. Much like the Montagues and Capulets, Hana and Janek’s participation in the protests finds their relationship running headfirst into family politics: Janek’s father is a government official tasked with restoring law and order, while Hania’s father is a Zionist Jew already under heavy government suspicion. Much like the beloved Shakespeare classic it so resembles, March ’68 features wonderful, swooning romance and beautiful sadness in equal measure, captured by two appealing leads with an electric chemistry between them. The movie’s back half also serves as a captivating history lesson of a time and place and event not widely known in America.

And that only scratches the surface of the 14 films screening as part of the festival; click here for the full festival schedule and to purchase tickets. Tickets for each film are $12, or you can get a four-pack for $40 or an eight-pack for $75 (plus fees). | Jason Green

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